This is a column called Major Keys written by Phil Witmer, the only actual musician employed by Noisey. It's about timbres, theory, chords (lots of 'em), and how these nerdy qualities make us feel things.
“We expect more from technology and less from each other.” - Sherry Turkle
“Radiation from the computer screen is hurting my eyes! I love it!” - Lil B
Years before Her, Black Mirror, and Marjorie Prime (I didn’t finish it, but it was very pensive and detached so I assume it's about how humanity is doomed) detailed a near-future where Instagram and Tinder were out to imprison our souls or whatever, a teenage Atlantan had already explored the ramifications of a radically connected world on traditional courtship. “Kiss Me Thru the Phone,” released ten years ago by Soulja Boy and Sammie, is the definitive ringtone rap single. It’s bubbly but low-slung, one of producer Jim Jonsin’s typically bleeping beats that—along with his work for Lil Wayne's “Lollipop” and T.I.'s “Whatever You Like”—completely ran 2008. It’s also the one single from that era to be completely centred around phones. And while those other two aforementioned singles were about love in their own ways, it’s “Kiss Me” that lands upon a potent truth, one that resonates especially strongly today: modern romance is beautiful, but a chore hidden behind endless filters.
The core construction of “Kiss Me” is simple: in the key of D major, we go from the IV (G major) to the V (A major) to the vi (B minor) for the whole song. It’s an elemental chord progression, one that suggests both rising tension and soaring euphoria in everything from EDM to stadium rock. What’s odd is that the strings play a triumphant phrase at the end of the progression that suggests the root chord, but said chord never appears. The resolution is a ghost, much like the beau that only exists for Soulja behind the screen of his iPhone 1.
That porous border between man and machine is present in how both Sammie’s robotic main melody (it barely deviates from staccato, rigid eighth-notes) and the ends of Soulja’s verses are always doubled by a software synth counterpart. It’s as though tech is infused in their very methods of communication, which is of course the point of “Kiss Me” in the first place. The two performers adopt the doo-wop derived character of lovelorn suitors (the old genre is also there in Soulja wordlessly imitating the repetitive da-da-da-da of texting), but they’re utterly content to receive their affection through a digital interface, bereft of any actual intimacy. It’s darker and more real than any high-budget cyberpunk series Netflix can throw at us.
Is this love? Can this be it? Are we resigned to this fate? Perhaps. Soulja was a forward-thinking artist, and it's reasonable to assume that he predicted our current predicament. But what if he also said “fuck all that” and posited another route for romance in the same year, one that was infinitely more life-affirming?
“Turn My Swag On” is many things. It’s one of the great rap songs to consist entirely of a hook. As Yasiin Bey—then known as Mos Def—put it, it is a spiritual in the African-American tradition. It is gratitude at being alive while also acknowledging that everyone else should be equally grateful for your presence. Though the song is in a minor key, it is more joyous than the birth of your first child. Its progression is a modified version of the ubiquitous vi-IV-I-V of “Africa” and “Airplanes” fame. Here, the root chord (G-flat major) and the dominant chord (D-flat major) are not only swapped but the root chord is played with a bass note that is not the root. It’s a B-flat, which is the iii or subdominant of our home key but is also part of a G-flat major triad. This is a type of slash chord, a chord where the bass doesn’t match the root. Future Islands’ “Seasons” features these in spades, where it feels like the bass guitar is pulling the keys into heightened emotional territory. It serves as a base to Soulja’s committed self-love.
Soulja’s flexing here is some of the best ever committed to tape. “I ain’t done nothing to ‘em but count this money” is the kind of “who, me?” nonchalance that it becomes its own kind of bizarre confidence. The rest of the words are standard fare, but taken to the limit by his sustained vocal delivery, unadorned by Auto-Tune to remain a raw declaration of having made it in the rap game. The hook is definitely tuneless but that just means that everyone sounds good yelling along to it. Though Soulja wrote the song specifically about himself, the love here is so pure that it’s elevated to high romance, and that goes for everyone who listens to the song, too. Beyoncé knew when she sampled the song for “Hold Up”: “Turn My Swag On” conjures self-love at its most potent and least narcissistic.
Once again, it’s Valentine’s Day today, and to Soulja there are two choices on this occasion. One is to embrace the charade of social media-era dating, where nothing is real and everything is a transaction. The other to is to fall madly in love with yourself, to wholly commit to only treating yourself well and making yourself great. Both are very extreme and probably bad for you in the long run. That Soulja Boy managed to convey both these aspects of our current cyberhell in 2008, on the futuristically titled iSouljaBoyTellEm, is still incredible. We deserve “Kiss Me Thru the Phone” just as much as we deserve “Turn My Swag On.” Disconnect can coexist with euphoria. Take a look in the mirror. Say “what’s up.” Whatever says “what’s up” back is up to you.
Phil is on Twitter.